Smart people cracking up is a popular theme in books and movies: recently Jeffrey Eugenide’s “Marriage Plot” and the Norwegian film “Reprise” were particularly harrowing treatments of the subject. The theme is entertaining because it makes us feel good in the way celebrity scandals make us feel good–look at these people, they have everything and they’re still screwed up!–and also because the smart people themselves are often entertaining even in the midst of their illness, self-aware, clever, and at least in their manic phases creative in both art and life in the “let’s stay up all night talking about French movies and then drive to the ocean to see the sunrise” sense.
Here’s a song about a smart person in a hospital bed recovering from having cracked up–or as the singer puts it, a person who “broke like a bad joke somebody’s uncle told at a wedding reception in 1972.” The lyrics are free-associative, they capture the wordplay and odd leaps of a mind turning constantly in on itself, a mind with nothing to occupy itself but itself. A flat statement of condition, “I’m afloat,” becomes, “I’m a float in a summer parade…with a girl on top wearing a Miss Somewhere sash.” And the thought of a beauty queen leads to these lines that for me articulate so well the soggy grayness of depression, the chewed-aspirin taste it gives everything:
Beauty’s just another word I’m never certain how to spell.
Go tell the nurse to turn the TV back on.
…which reminds me of William Carlos Williams’ dying grandmother looking out an ambulance window and seeing trees and declaring herself tired of them.
The melody of the song is as meandering as the lyrics, with a prominent drumbeat that sounds like a drum machine and underscores the dull repetition of a mind trying to think itself back to sanity. The singer sort of succeeds: finds some solace in a childhood memory of falling asleep in a new winter coat on a long car ride home while his mother and father talked quietly in the front seat, rejects his despair and imagines defeating it with the help of a machine made of “lies and gasoline.” The songs ends abruptly, not the gradual fade of sleep but the hard stop of meds kicking in.
The next song on the album, “Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call,” is equally great. The whole album is great, and you should buy it at your earliest convenience. Buy all the Weakerthans albums, actually. And if you happen to see John K. Samson, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, let him know he has a meal, drink, and place to stay if he ever makes it to Arlington, Massachusetts. But only if he plays an acoustic version of another song on this CD I love, an envoi to a friend making a reluctant but necessary clean break, which concludes with these wonderful lines:
So put on those clothes you never grew into, and smile like you mean it for once.
If you come back, bring a new name for everything.